Brands ‘R’ Us?

Brands ‘R’ Us?

Jeremy Rifkin wants to rock the world of the jaded reader: He predicts that we’re entering a completely new–the final–stage of capitalism.


Jeremy Rifkin wants to rock the world of the jaded reader: He predicts that we’re entering a completely new–the final–stage of capitalism. This new era Rifkin variously calls “cultural capitalism,” “hypercapitalism” and the Age of Access. We’ve reached a “defining moment in history” that “already is challenging many of our most basic assumptions about what constitutes human society,” as “a new human archetype is being born.”

The reader might be excused for wondering if this year’s fundamentally new era is fundamentally different from the “great historic transformation” Rifkin warned us about in his equally wrongheaded 1995 book, The End of Work. In that book we were alerted to a “momentous change taking place–change so vast in scale that we are barely able to fathom its ultimate impact,” one that “could spell a death sentence for civilization as we have come to know it.” Come 2000, and in his all-new apocalyptic vision, Rifkin barely mentions his central thesis of five years earlier.

That could be because Rifkin’s earlier forecasts appear to have been a little off-target. Automation was supposed to make manufacturing “near-workerless” by the early decades of this century, and the service sector would follow suit soon after, thus “the end of work.” Instead, the trend is in the other direction: The 65 percent of the US population now working is the highest percentage in history. To take just one example–one that any good futurist assumes is an industry on the way out–there are more auto workers in the United States today than there were in 1980. (The number of unionized auto workers is far less, but that’s a different story.)

So completely has Rifkin moved on from his earlier preoccupation that the disappearance of jobs plays no role in this year’s central proposition. Today the main thing we need to know (besides the fact that “the foundation of modern life is beginning to disintegrate”) is that ownership is on the way out. “Owning things, lots of things, is considered outdated and out of place in the more ephemeral, fast-paced economy.” Instead, the new organizing principle is “access”: access to the web (of course), but also access to “the experience economy,” a k a “the weightless economy.” Consumers today don’t want to be tied down by owning a carpet; they just want the experience of having one in their homes.

Property itself, Rifkin tells us, is outmoded; he repeatedly disparages the notion of “mine and thine,” the organizing principle of a fading era. His main proof is that leasing is increasing and that some companies give their products away (cell phones, software) when you sign a service contract.

How to argue against ideas like this and the other quarter-baked assertions that make up The Age of Access? It’s a mishmash of management guru-speak (Tom Peters is cited often), musings on postmodernism and assertions that various well-known constructs are over and done with. The latter include markets, class warfare and the nation-state.

Markets are being replaced by “networks,” buyers and sellers transformed into suppliers and users in “win-win” relationships. The right-left dichotomy of the industrial era, with its class warfare among “the upper class, middle class, working class, and poor,” is over, subsumed by the struggle between intrinsic value and utility value. The “end of the nation-state” is upon us, evidenced by the fact that the web knows no borders and by government’s inability to collect taxes on purchases made on the Net. Guess those corporate types spending millions on Gore, Bush and Congress don’t realize they’re wasting their money! I almost expected Rifkin to announce “the paperless office,” but he admits that’s “not yet in sight.”

Among his central arguments, Rifkin throws in occasional howlers: Small business is the backbone of capitalism. Property is a social convention for negotiating individual spheres of influence (not class spheres of influence). And “the work environment is steadily being transformed into a play environment.” Evidence: Kodak has a “humor room.” (Cf. The End of Work: “Millions of alienated workers…experiencing rising levels of stress in high-tech work environments…. Millions who experience their own individual deaths, daily, at the hands of profit-driven employers.”)

Let’s tackle Rifkin’s chief and most coherent assertion: “Our long attachment to ownership is beginning to weaken.” The author has the grace to note that this is not true for the vast majority of the world’s population, who have neither property nor access; 65 percent of people living today, he says, have never made a phone call. While the “affluent fifth of the [world] population is leaving property behind in search of cultural experiences and personal transformation, the remaining four-fifths have meager belongings and still wish to be propertied.” It’s that top fifth, though, the trendsetters, who count, we’re reminded repeatedly.

Rifkin is 180 degrees wrong about his target market. Far from leaving property behind, in the United States the top layer owns a larger share of property of all kinds, both consumer and money-making assets, than at any time since the Great Depression. In 1994 the wealthiest 10 percent of families owned 67 percent of all wealth, up from 62 percent in 1989. (The poorest 10 percent had no wealth at all, but their average debt had increased by half.) When it comes to business assets, the wealthiest 1 percent of households own 57 percent, six times the value in the hands of the bottom 90 percent.

The holders of capital know, as Rifkin pretends not to, that it’s ownership of all those shares that makes them who they are and gives them what they want in the world. If not, why are they so busy giving each other stock options? Try telling Bill Gates, fighting tooth and nail to hold on to all of Microsoft (one of those playful corporations), that ownership is passé.

In fact, Rifkin’s got it topsy-turvy–if ownership is now outmoded, then it’s the majority who are way ahead of their time. The vast majority of people have always owned almost nothing: a few consumer goods and, if they’re lucky, their house, jointly with the bank. Less than half of US households contain even one person who owns even one share of stock, including pension plans.

If Rifkin had stuck to informing us that franchising is on the rise, that more people are leasing certain consumer items and that businesses now lease a big chunk of their equipment, that would have been interesting. But when he tries to dress these trends up as a grand theory that property is dead, he makes a fool of himself. You would have been better off with “property is theft,” Jeremy.

Rifkin makes his apocalyptic pronouncements with a straight face. As if he has learned nothing from the advertisers and experience-mongers he decries, his entire book contains not one bit of humor, not even an acknowledgment that you’re reading about “the death of the author” in a non-cyberbook whose author will surely own its royalties. I did laugh out loud, though, at the phrase “the nagging question of who should control the means of production.”

One more jab: Rifkin asks, “Who hasn’t defended the virtues of property and markets with passionate abandon at one time or another?” Raise your hands.

It’s a shame, because some of Rifkin’s conclusions are right: that the commercialization of every waking moment is disgusting, that we need both biodiversity and cultural diversity, that play should not be corporatized. Luckily, you don’t need to own The Age of Access to read an indictment of the corporate attempt to imprint a commercial message on everything you see, hear or own (or lease). Naomi Klein’s No Logo is a far wittier, more down-to-earth look at what Rifkin calls the commodification of experience and she calls “branding.”

I was chilled, reading No Logo. I have a 12-year-old who wishes she lived in a Delia’s catalogue. In her downtown Detroit school, I’m told, kids get razzed if they mix their brands–you’re not supposed to wear Adidas shoes with a Nike sweatshirt. But I never buy anything, my neighborhood is still almost 100 percent logo-free (well, not the gas stations) and I hadn’t quite realized how much the rising generation has been subjected to “colonization not of physical space but of mental space.”

Klein and Rifkin cover a lot of the same territory: corporate sponsorship of cultural events; “cool hunting” agencies paid to track down trends among black teenagers; marketing inside the schools; franchises crowding out mom-and-pops; outsourcing to sweatshops; buying an experience, not just a thing; shopping as theater; Celebration, Florida, Disney’s branded town; Disney as the grandfather of it all; and Bill Gates Bill Gates Bill Gates and Nike Nike Nike. One big difference is that Klein, a 29-year-old red-diaper baby, has been there and rejected that, while over-50 Rifkin, who lectures at the Wharton School, is mostly disapproving but also gulled by management-speak about what they’re up to. More important, Klein’s main mission is to report on the resistance to the “brand bullies.” She stresses that her book is not about predictions–unlike Rifkin’s–but it reads like a prophecy of the WTO protests in Seattle.

Klein, who is a master of the razor-sharp soundbite, introduces us to the moguls of marketing, who, she says, decided in the eighties and nineties that companies should be “meaning brokers” rather than product producers. Polaroid needed to stop thinking of itself as a camera–it’s really a “social lubricant.” Levi’s problem was that it hadn’t promoted any particular lifestyle to go along with its jeans–no denim house paint. Says Starbucks’ marketing VP: Coffee is the company’s “opportunity for emotional leverage…. A great brand raises the bar–it adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience.” The Body Shop, says founder Anita Roddick, is not about bath oil but is the conveyor of her philosophy about women and the environment. The author of a sixth-grade math book riddled her text with references to Oreos and Nike, not because she was paid to do it but because she wanted to speak to kids in their own language–brands.

Then, once the brands have turned you into a “life-sized Tommy doll”–walking billboards–once they’ve made themselves ubiquitous parts of the landscape and everyone’s mental map, they tell you that you can’t use their name in vain. They take up all the public space–those building-sized paste-on ads are only the biggest example–and then they remind you that brands are private property. The owners of Barney won’t let shops rent out dinosaur costumes, if they’re purple. Disney forced a group of New Zealand parents to remove their homemade version of Donald Duck from a playground mural. After making Barbie a cultural icon, Mattel sued the rock band Aqua for its hit song “Barbie Girl.” Artists and activists who “jam” ads run afoul of trademark, copyright, libel and “brand disparagement” laws. Island Records and CBS Records sued artists, successfully, for sampling or remixing Casey Kasem and Michael Jackson. The message, says Klein, is that “culture is something that happens to you. You buy it at the Virgin Megastore or Toys ‘R’ Us…. It is not something in which you participate, or to which you have the right to respond.”

Klein’s chapters that describe the brand bullies and the resistance to them are the best parts of No Logo. Her information on the outsourcing of work to overseas sweatshops (though enlivened by her personal visits to Indonesia and the Philippines) and the casualization of work back home is more-oft-trod territory. Yet the latter is a necessary part of her argument. She shows how “the ‘strongest’ brands are the ones generating the worst jobs, whether in the export processing zones…or at the mall. The companies that advertise aggressively on MTV…are the very ones that pioneered the McJob sector and led the production exodus to cheap labor enclaves…. After pumping young people up with go-get-’em messages–the ‘Just Do It’ sneakers…–these companies have responded to job requests with a resounding ‘Who, me?'”

Not that long ago, corporations could defuse citizen resistance with job blackmail. Yes, we poison the river, but what would you do without a paycheck? Now that the jobs are gone, no one but the stockholder has an investment in these companies’ profitability. Klein believes that anticorporate activism is on the rise precisely because branding has worked so well: “Multinationals like Nike, Microsoft and Starbucks have sought to become the chief communicators of all that is good and cherished in our culture: art, sports, community, connection, equality. But the more successful this project is, the more vulnerable these companies become: When they do wrong, their crimes are not dismissed as merely the misdemeanors of another corporation trying to make a buck…. This is a connection more akin to the relationship of fan and celebrity: emotionally intense but shallow enough to turn on a dime.”

So Klein documents “a largely underground system of information, protest and planning” against the brand bullies. We read about culture jamming, “the practice of parodying advertisements and hijacking billboards in order to drastically alter their messages.” The idea is that people “should have the right to talk back to images they never asked to see.” Joe Camel turns into Joe Chemo. Calvin Klein ads are scrawled with “Feed me.” Problem is, the branders fight back, with prejammed ads like Sprite’s “Image Is Nothing” campaign and Nike’s “I am not a target market, I am an athlete.” Nike even asked Ralph Nader to “take a light-hearted jab at us,” in a script of their writing, for $25,000. (He said no.) For the angriest of the adbusters, attempts at co-optation just fuel their fires.

Youth culture meets political protest at Global Street Parties, efforts to establish noncommercial space. Sponsors tell you that concerts are “made possible by…” The “Reclaim the Streets” rave-cum-demo asserts that kids can do it themselves. Klein notes that the first was held in thirty cities on May 16, 1998, the day G-8 leaders gathered for a summit. In the United States 1995-96 was the Year of the Sweatshop, the year Kathie Lee cried on TV. As everyone knows, students have been on a tear ever since. Central American garment workers are brought to the United States to speak to their Northern age-mates on campus. For thousands and thousands of people, Nike, Disney and Wal-Mart are forever branded with the image of the sweatshop.

Klein is not starry-eyed about the possibilities of brand-based activism. She’s not thrilled that we seem to need to reshape issues of injustice so that they can be brought home to us as shoppers, and she warns that campaigns should not degenerate into mere ethical shopping guides.

Like Rifkin, Klein is weakest when she overreaches. Anxious to connect her two themes, branding and sweatshops, she says that corporations began outsourcing because they needed more money for their ad campaigns. Not that simple: Profit rates began slipping in the sixties, long before branding took off, and companies are using all kinds of strategies to recover: speedups, demanding union concessions, automation, unionbusting and tax-dodging as well as full-court-press marketing and contracting out.

And since Klein’s subject is youth radicalization, she barely mentions unions (except the need for them in the Third World), which potentially have more power to disrupt corporate plans than even the best spray-can wielder. Arguing the need for both parts of the coalition, Jeff Crosby, president of a General Electric local, reported on Seattle in Labor Notes:

Without the [kids’] Direct Action, which disrupted the WTO, the labor march would have received a two-minute clip on the nightly news, with something like, “A bunch of inefficient union workers from the rustbelt marched for a return of the bad old days. Fortunately the WTO delegates largely ignored these bits of road kill on the way to the new economy. Although they are hopeless Luddites, it is true that something must be done for the losers in the new world economy who are too old and hidebound to run a computer.”
      Then again, without the thousands of union members, it would have been easier to write off the young protesters as flakes, people who aren’t worried about basic issues like having to earn a living.

Many of the readers of this magazine doubtless spent some time as young protesters themselves, in the last great wave of youth activism. We’ve often looked over our shoulders to see if anyone was coming behind, and for too many years they weren’t. Klein helps explain where the new passion is coming from, what it grew up on, how it sees the enemy. Own her book. Ignore its brand name.

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